The future is digital

The future is digital, as the title of the latest house venue network meeting has it, whether we like it or not. The aim of the day, then, was to better equip venues and artists in the house network to use digital technology to their advantage, as a tool to engage, involve and inspire their audiences. With so much else to deal with on a day to day basis, digital might not always feel like a priority, but the day’s sessions made a compelling case for why it should be an integral part of how theatre organisations function in the 21st century.

The morning began with a quick update on what house has achieved since it started, as well as an invitation for the network to share their thoughts about what more the team could do. There was an interesting discussion about programming choices and how house decides which shows to recommend to the network, as well as an explanation of the audience strands house is now using for its tours: All the Family, A Night Out, Something Different and Young Imaginations.

We then moved on to the key note speech, which was given by Jim Richardson, creator of the Digital Engagement Framework. The framework, which is available to download as a free online resource, helps organisations to identify opportunities to create value through digital engagement and to develop the strategies needed to do so. Crucially, Richardson insisted that digital technology should never just be tacked on for the sake of it – there’s no point in creating an app if you don’t know what it’s for. Richardson instead advised that organisations should develop and articulate their own vision first and foremost, then think about how digital opportunities could help them to achieve that vision.

Richardson also recommended that venues decide on up to ten measurable digital objectives – no more – and look at ways to turn their assets into digital content. This could mean anything from uploading videos to publishing blogs from the staff, and many more creative possibilities besides. In terms of engaging audiences, Richardson outlined a series of steps from simply reaching people to fully engaging them as advocates, making the point that theatres need to work backwards from the number of fully involved audience members they want to the number of people they need to initially reach. The more people are aware of what’s going on, the more chance that a few of them may become actively involved with the organisation.

Though perhaps not as provocative as some of the key note speeches at other house venue network events, Richardson’s talk laid the groundwork for other, more specific aspects of digital engagement that were explored in the afternoon’s breakout sessions. A Younger Theatre’s Jake Orr started his presentation with a bit of a curveball, telling the group all about Disneyworld’s new MyMagic+ package, which uses a digital wristband to extend the user experience beyond the bounds of the park and minimise “friction points” for visitors. The idea is that the whole experience is as magical as possible – from planning an itinerary in advance of arriving to pre-ordering food and drink on the go.

It might sound a world away from small- to mid-scale theatre, but what Orr was getting at is how venues can similarly address areas of friction and make the experience of audiences more magical. His presentation recalled theatre company Coney’s attitude to the audience experience, which they insist begins when you first hear about a show and only finishes when you stop thinking about it. There are numerous ways that theatres can use digital engagement to create this journey for audience members, be it a tailored website experience or more detailed context about the work’s artistic vision. Examples include Headlong, who include a whole wealth of related content alongside information about their shows on their website. In discussion, there was an acknowledgement that not all audience members will want to be as deeply engaged as others, but that digital engagement needs to be about offering choice and constantly asking “what next?”

The second afternoon breakout session that I attended was with the Audience Agency’s Adrienne Pye, who explained how digital tools can help theatres to work out who their audiences are and who they could be targeting. She walked us through the Audience Agency’s new Audience Spectrum, which breaks the population down into ten culturally active segments: Metroculturals, Commuterland Culturebuffs, Experience Seekers, Dormitory Dependables, Trips & Treats, Home & Heritage, Up Our Street, Facebook Families, Kaleidoscope Creativity and Heydays (details about the make-up of each segment are available on the Audience Spectrum website). The detail of this segmentation is quite extraordinary, offering a fascinating snapshot of how digital technology can be used to better understand and engage with audiences.

In the final breakout session, which I was unable to attend, Sarah Gee looked at the ways in which fundraising is changing in response to both a challenging funding climate and the new possibilities of the digital age. While everyone is, to a greater or lesser extent, still finding their way with digital tools and technologies, the whole day demonstrated the range of ways in which these technologies impact upon the arts and the new avenues they open up for venues and artists alike.